Gay Male Social Life

Gay men are an extremely diverse group, and generalizations, even about large subsets of gay men, tend to be more harmful than accurate. A few examples illustrate the point. Life for a gay man in a small midwestern town bears little resemblance to that of a gay man living in Los Angeles or rural Texas. A Latino gay may have a social environment quite different from that of a Caucasian gay man or an African-American gay man, even in the same city. A single, 18-year-old gay man lives a life quite different from that of a 65-year-old gay man in a committed relationship. Gay youth who have run away from home may find little to recognize in the life of a gay university professor living in a well-furnished apartment. Such diversity cannot easily be squeezed into neat stereotypes. In attempting to capsulize and target “gay demographics,” media concerns and advertising agencies have taken on a daunting challenge.

The popular media portrays gay men in various stereotypes. A gay man is young, beautiful, and materialistic and focused on sex and partying. A gay man is into leather. A gay man dresses in drag (as a woman) and is extremely effeminate. Although some gay men may fit each of these stereotypes, the majority resists acting in ways that can be neatly summarized, or indeed fit any stereotype.

Young gay men just coming out, however, with limited role models or none at all, may believe these are indeed the ways to act if one is a gay man. If they do not comply with the stereotypes they see, they may feel they do not fit in. Gay men of all ages may feel pressure to somehow be like the image of the gay man they see in the popular gay press or the general media—to be young, thin, well-built, usually Caucasian, and sexually focused—and feel that there is “ageism,” “lookism,” and even racism in the “gay community.” Although these “isms” may exist in certain individuals, they certainly cannot be attributed to all gay men.

Gay men of color sometimes describe feeling invisible in settings where most of the other gay men are Caucasian, but this experience varies by city and region of the country. Besides the general antigay bias in our society, gay men of color may also face racism—from heterosexuals as well as other gay people. In addition, they may have specific cultural or ethnic issues about homosexuality or ways of having sex with which to contend (as may many Caucasian gay men). For example, many cultures do not condemn sex between men but at the same time do not acknowledge or discuss it, especially if the man is married to a woman or considers himself straight (or bisexual).

In spite of growing awareness and acceptance of gay people, social outlets for gay men still tend to be limited in both scope and location.The “gay ghetto,” the section of town where gay people feel comfortable being and getting together, usually is identified by the presence of gay bars. The number of gay coffee shops, bookstores, and activities that do not involve alcohol and drugs is increasing, but gay bars and parties that focus on alcohol and drug use are by far the best advertised and most identifiable elements of gay social life.

An activity that seems unique to gay people— mostly men, though some lesbians take part—is the “circuit party.” These parties are weekend-long gatherings that focus on dancing, sexual activity, and alcohol and drug use. Attended primarily by gay men in their early twenties to late forties, these parties are held all across the country (and indeed, around the world), forming a “circuit” of connected activities frequented by many of the same people who travel from event to event. The parties encourage drug use—to enhance the dancing (like at a “rave”) and sexual activity. The “designer” drugs—ecstasy, gamma hydroxybuturate (GHB), Special-K, and others—as well as amphetamines (speed or crystal)—are heavily used and promoted. Fatalities have even been associated with the use of these drugs at some parties.